Oct 21 2014

Colleges Need Newer Networks Now

Setting priorities and sticking to a phased-in plan allow institutions to upgrade their networks and stay competitive.

Many colleges face similar networking issues and challenges: an antiquated backbone network ­infrastructure and a wireless network, in serious need of an upgrade, that doesn't cover residence halls or most of the campus very well.

The vast majority of colleges need newer networks — and they need them now. Why? College administrators know that attracting and keeping students today often depends on the quality of the wireless network.

Students can and do base the decision on whether to attend an institution on how well the wireless network worked on the day they visited. Students want to know that they can bring their smartphones, notebooks, tablets and gaming systems to campus and turn them on to browse the web, access course information or play video games in their downtime.

Does that mean IT staff should jump to replace or upgrade a wireless network right away? That really depends on the status of a college's network. For those that already have 10 Gigabit Ethernet backbone switches, the backbone switch upgrade can be bypassed; go right to the site survey stage and focus on upgrading the wireless network.

Others have more work ahead of them. At the University of St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Ill., the IT staff was confronted with a 20-year-old, 10-megabit-per-second network in desperate need of a refresh.

The IT team's first steps included installation of a 10 Gig-E backbone along with edge switches that deliver 1-gigabit-per-second speeds to the desktop and wireless access points. It made no sense to install new wireless APs when the backbone network couldn't handle the throughput. Once that infrastructure was in place, the team moved forward with a site survey.

The importance of the site survey can't be underestimated, especially at older colleges where IT managers often must provide wireless services in buildings and dorms that are well over a 100 years old. A thorough site survey will determine precise coverage needs. The team at St. Mary of the Lake discovered they needed six APs per floor to offer students the coverage they desired.

The result? Students, faculty and staff can now bring devices to campus and access the web and other college information by doing nothing more than establishing a Wi-Fi connection.

Focus on Infrastructure

Recent research by the Enterprise Strategy Group into IT managers' funding priorities at educational institutions revealed that 59 percent plan to upgrade campus networks. Another 45 percent say they will focus on upgrading wireless LANs. Based on ESG's study, it's clear that St. Mary of the Lake was not alone in its need to upgrade its backbone network.

Jerrold M. Grochow, a former CIO at MIT who now works as a consultant to universities, says that when an older network has many points of failure, IT teams shouldn't be surprised when it fails. Grochow also says it's not always necessary to rebuild an entire system. IT departments can preserve components that are still in working order.

A college or university might need to build a new data center to take advantage of modern power and cooling techniques, but that doesn't mean it should replace all of the virtual servers provisioned through the years. Above all, Grochow advises IT managers to set priorities: If bring-your-own-device and providing wireless access to multiple devices are immediate needs, stick with those, and add unified communications servers and video conferencing for mobile devices in the classroom in subsequent years. With so much ground to cover, it's impossible to accomplish everything right away.

Start with an honest assessment of the network, and weigh the costs and risks of a replacement against doing nothing at all. From there, the IT team can set priorities and chart a three- to five-year plan for delivering modern, technology-­based education.